January 20, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 60  

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One victory for plagiarism

You may remember the saga of McGill University student Jesse Rosenfeld, who back in October was given a zero on an economics essay after refusing to hand in his paper through the online plagirism detecting service turnitin.com. Rosenfeld claimed that providing students’ essays to a private company constituted a violation of his intellectual property rights.

Nearly three months later, the decision came down. Rosenfeld will have his zero stricken from the record and his paper will be marked with no consequences.

In deciding in favour of Rosenfeld, the university undermined the authority of the professor. By not providing an explanation for their reasoning, it makes it seem they were only trying to avoid a lawsuit, not to do what was in the best interest of students.

The Canadian Federation of Students and their national chairperson Ian Boyko, who staunchly defended Rosenfeld, claimed turnitin.com was “a substitute for hiring enough faculty members to take the time to read student work.”

This inaccurate description misses the problem altogether. The website does not grade the work; it only catches passages that seem too similar to other works. For students who don’t plagarize their essay, then there’s nothing to worry about. Since the Internet makes it easier than ever to plagarize an essay, it only stands to reason that professors should use the same technology as a defense. The CFS has taken an ideological stance and is trying to defend its support of Rosenfeld, but realistically they have not thought their decision through to the end.

Turnitin.com is not a scheme cooked up by universities to make money off their students’ work. The website is run by a private company that provides a service, and thus should be allowed to make money off it; this would be like criticizing D.B. Weldon Library for spending the late fees they collect from students.

Let’s also put an end to the idea of the essay as “private intellectual property,” since realistically these papers do not represent years worth of intense research and study. The majority of students are writing (and maybe even conceiving) essays the night before they’re due.

Professors and TAs routinely show essays to their peers in order to get opinions on their quality and content, so it’s not as if the paper is some kind of a sacred bond between teacher and student. The CFS may hail this as a victory for personal freedom, but it’s really a victory for plagarism.

Rosenfeld may claim to be fighting for students’ rights, but if this decision by McGill ends up with even one plagarist using this loophole to avoid electronic detection, then it is students who will be hurt by cheaters soiling the value of a university degree.



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